Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Bigfoot Family (Ben Stassen / Jeremy Degruson, 2020)

Three years on from the generally entertaining Son of Bigfoot, Ben Stassen returns with this vastly superior sequel; between his two Sasquatch adventures, the ever-busy Stassen made the middling The Queen's Corgi, an amusing enough diversion, yet one which didn't demonstrate much progress on the part of the Belgian filmmaker.  Bigfoot Family, however, might well be Stassen's best film to date, and it manages to marry top-drawer animation to an appealing, exciting story, which is a trick that Stassen and his studio nWave haven't always managed to pull off with their films - not that they're the only purveyors of animated features to have slipped up in such a manner.  Although nWave have always made a good fist of producing solid animation in the face of megabudgeted competition from the likes of Pixar, Blue Sky, Dreamworks and the like, Bigfoot Family may be the first film from the Belgian studio to pose a serious question to the all-conquering Disney and its various subsidiaries.  Which is not to say that nWave can realistically expect to take on the big American animation studios in financial terms, but, from a creative perspective, Bigfoot Family is a film that holds its own against any feature-length toon from the past year or so.  

As with the first film, it's Adam, the offspring of Bigfoot, who is actually at the centre of the story.  Adam's life has changed considerably since he successfully tracked down his missing father in Son of Bigfoot, and his family's home is now shared with the myriad woodland creatures that helped his dad during his stint in the wild.  Furthermore, Bigfoot himself has become a major celebrity - the film's alternative title is Bigfoot Superstar - and it now seems that everyone wants a piece of the hirsute scientist.  Bigfoot has little interest in milking his status for financial gain, but rather decides to use his newfound fame to help a good cause, so he heads to Alaska to join a group of protesters who are camped outside an onshore drilling site.  Shortly after arriving in Alaska, Bigfoot vanishes, so Adam and his mum (and the unruly animals) set off for Alaska in the hope of solving the mystery; as in Son of Bigfoot, Adam is charged with locating his missing father, and in a further parallel with the first film, his investigation brings him up against a sinister, greedy megacorporation.

With its largely recycled plot, Bigfoot Family could easily have served as a pale imitation of its predecessor, but the outstanding animation - the Alaskan wilderness is brilliantly recreated - immediately marks the film out as one that's looking to improve on Son of Bigfoot (which itself boasted fine tech credits); however, and as previously noted, great animation counts for little if you don't have the script to support it, but here both the dialogue and humour are well-judged.  While the basic setup offers nothing very new, Stassen and his crew have made a charming, witty, family-friendly film that appeals to young and old alike; the catchy, poppy soundtrack, courtesy of Belgian group Puggy, helps ensure that things move along at a nice clip  Tweens are covered, too, via a subplot involving the crush the awkward Adam has on his good friend Emma.  While Bigfoot Family covers some environmental issues, it never does so in an overly preachy way, and its ideas about renewable energy and the future might prompt one or two interesting enquiries from younger viewers.

Bigfoot Family made its debut at last year's Annecy IAFF, and it's a pity that such a great effort from nWave was denied a clear run at the box office; while the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a situation that everyone in the filmmaking world has had to adapt to - numerous films that were intended for theatrical distribution have plunged straight to VOD - it seems a great pity that what may well be the jewel in nWave's crown has bypassed so many cinemas.  The film, like the rest of the studio's feature output, was made to be shown in 3D, and it is quite possible that this expense would have been spared had Stassen and his colleagues known what was in store for the film industry.  However, you can - and should - support the film now that it's out on home video, and you can even watch it in 3D if you have the required setup at home.  Bigfoot Family is easily nWave's best film since The House of Magic, and it provides some much-needed fun in these troubled times.   

Darren Arnold

Images: nWave

Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Lux Æterna (Gaspar Noé, 2019)

Amazingly, the last Cannes Film Festival took place way back in 2019, and it was during this edition that Gaspar Noé's Lux Æterna was first unleashed; in September 2020, during a welcome if brief window in which cinemas were permitted to reopen, the film received a theatrical release in France.  For those of us who didn't manage to catch the film on the big screen, it's been an extremely long wait, but last month Lux Æterna began to surface on several VOD platforms; while consuming the film in this manner isn't exactly ideal, your eyeballs will probably thank you by the time you reach the end of the mild-mannered Noé's latest visual assault on audiences.  In all seriousness, Lux Æterna is a film that fully warrants its epilepsy warning, so please keep this in mind before viewing.  When the film received its French premiere, it was preceded by a Noé short titled The Art of Filmmaking, a stroboscopic essay film that is borderline unwatchable, and I do wonder what condition the audience were in when they braced themselves for the main feature. 

Yet to refer to Lux Æterna as a feature is slightly misleading, as it runs to a little over fifty minutes.  Noé initially received funding from Saint Laurent to shoot an advert for the luxury fashion house, but came up with something that was much longer than, and some way from, what was ordered; luckily, YSL were very happy with what their money had been spent on.  Noé actually shot enough footage to make a feature film of typical length, but Lux Æterna's liberal use of split-screen effectively halves the film's runtime.  As such, the film is closer in length to Noé's uncompromising Carne - a work that's now a full thirty years old - than it is to any of his five full-length films from I Stand Alone through Climax.  While the addition of The Art of Filmmaking would have allowed the programme to be classified as a feature film in France, the short isn't included in the version currently streaming, so we are best to consider Lux Æterna to be a medium-length work, albeit one that proves to be way more interesting than many films twice the length.  While its fierce strobe effects prove to be something of an endurance test, Lux Æterna stands as Noé's tamest film (it's all relative), as it eschews both the juddering violence and sexually explicit material we've largely come to expect from his work.

As with every Noé film from 2002's Irreversible on, Lux Æterna features the work of expert cinematographer Benoit Debie, and the brilliant Belgian's work here provides yet further proof of both his extraordinary ability and the essential part he plays in forming Noé's now-trademark aesthetic.  Lux Æterna, like Irreversible - which was recently re-edited into a chronological version that is now available on Blu-ray - culminates in a sensory overload, but at least this time around the audience doesn't face the challenge while still fresh from a pummelling by two of the most brutal sequences in modern mainstream cinema; Lux Æterna, despite instilling the rising sense of unease we've long since come to associate with Noé's films, is at its heart a warm, rather playful affair, one in which all of the cast and crew are credited by just their first names, which stands is sharp contrast to Irreversible's opening (closing?) credits, wherein those on both sides of the camera were coldly, simply denoted by their surnames.  

Lux Æterna is a meta-movie in which actresses Charlotte Gainsbourg and Béatrice Dalle play themselves; Dalle is directing a film about witch trials, and Gainsbourg is the star.  Yet Dalle is faced with many obstacles, ranging from meddling producers to a highly subversive cinematographer, plus there's Karl Glusman, from Noé's 3D movie Love, as a rather desperate type who's apparently flown in from LA just to pitch his new project to the put-upon Gainsbourg.  For the climactic witch-burning scene of Dalle's film, models Abbey Lee and Mica Argañaraz flank Gainsbourg as the three are tied to stakes in front of a green screen.  But a strange lighting glitch occurs, and Lux Æterna winds to its fiery conclusion via a full-bore RGB nightmare.  These closing moments are really the film's raison d'être, and they deliver exactly what we've come to expect from Noé, which is a real experience; he's a filmmaker who's always determined to evoke a visceral response from his audience.  While Noé always appears chiefly interested in what his viewers think - or, more accurately, feel - when they're caught up in watching his work, his prior films are all extremely memorable, and the infernal, invigorating Lux Æterna, in which Noé delivers his thrills with typical aplomb, is thankfully no different.

Darren Arnold

Images: UFO Distribution

Friday, 15 January 2021

Frames of Representation (27/11/20–13/12/20)

Frames of Representation (FoR), the ICA film festival, returned for its fifth edition last month. A showcase for the ‘cinema of the real’, the 2020 festival presented 20 films that offered aesthetic and political resistances to cinematic categorisations.

Emerging from Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America, the new films that screened at FoR 2020 engaged with multi-layered ethical and political concerns, experimental filmmaking practices and the development of new modes of language.

In this edition, the festival’s thematic focus encapsulated notions of the role of spectatorship. Alongside the films, a programme of workshops, discussion and performance interrogated the relationship between knowledge, engagement and the act of viewing. FoR 2020 challenged the relationship between viewing and action by bringing to the fore the space that comes after watching a film. The festival foregrounded the idea of the image as a moving proposal for the renegotiation and redistribution of positions of reception and activity, providing a space for fluid dynamics rather than rigid dichotomies.

Highlights included The Earth Is Blue as an Orange, the first feature by Iryna Tsilyk and the winner of the Best Directing Award for World Cinema Documentary at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, which offers cinematic and cultural resistance to Ukraine’s tumultuous relationship with Russia; and the Hong Kong/China co-production The Cloud in Her Room, a personal and generational story by Zheng Lu Xinyuan that won the Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam 2020. FoR 2020 also dedicated days to explore the works of filmmakers from Eastern Europe and Latin America, including Los conductos by Camilo Restrepo, winner of the Best First Feature Award at the 70th Berlin International Film Festival. The festival’s opening and closing night films were Panquiaco, the first feature by Panamanian artist and filmmaker Ana Elena Tejera, and Air Conditioner, by Angolan collective Fradique.

Source: ICA

Image: IFFR

Friday, 1 January 2021

Tuesday, 22 December 2020

Tuesday, 1 December 2020

Rutger & The Wreck: A Chat with Ken Rowles

Rutger Hauer (2018)
Rutget Hauer. Image: DWDD [CC BY 3.0]
The late Dutch actor Rutger Hauer left behind a highly impressive CV, one which includes the likes of 80s classics Blade Runner and The Hitcher, along with four Dutch-language films directed by Paul Verhoeven: Katie TippelTurkish DelightSpetters and Soldier of Orange.  In his later years, Hauer was more often than not seen in supporting roles, and during this century he appeared in several big-budget productions including Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins; towards the end of his life, he had a part in Jacques Audiard's outstanding The Sisters Brothers (pictured below, courtesy of UniFrance).  Back in the late 1980s, Hauer was due to star in a film called Torment, yet there's virtually nothing in the way of information regarding this title, despite it occurring during the height of the actor's popularity.  Although there are a few scant production details listed on the British Film Institute's website, Torment has always presented something of a mystery, so I'm pleased to have finally learned a bit more about it, courtesy of the man who was in place to direct the film.

Back in October, I spent a very pleasant couple of hours or so with filmmaker Ken Rowles, who has numerous credits dating back more than fifty years.  I actually met with Ken to ask him about his work on Jean-Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, but our conversation also covered a number of Ken's other projects, both realised and unrealised, with Torment coming under the latter category.  In Ken's many years in the film industry, he's encountered and/or worked with the likes of Stanley Baker, Tony Curtis, Dick Emery, Simon Ward, Ken Russell, Peter Sykes, and Ian McShane, and his film with Rutger Hauer sounds like an intriguing project, one which will sadly never come to fruition.  Torment was to be written and produced by Christian Bel, who took on the same duties for the Anthony Quinn–Lauren Bacall love story A Star for Two, a project that was made after Torment failed to get off the ground.  A Star for Two is a remarkably difficult title to track down, although Bel has uploaded a promo reel for the film to YouTube; Bel, like yours truly, has a solitary feature film to his name on the IMDb, and it seems that he left the film industry following the 1991 release of A Star for Two, which was directed by Canadian Jimmy Kaufman.

Anyway, Ken informed me that Torment was to be a film centring on the Algerian War, or, more accurately, the aftermath of the conflict, as the lead character struggled with his memories of the war as he tried to live out his life in Paris, and this mental anguish is presumably what the film's title referred to.  As the director, Ken spent a lot of time in Paris as the film entered its pre-production phase, and he also flew out to Tunisia to look at potential locations.  But, despite all the groundworkthe film never made it into production; while Torment is by no means unusual in this regard, it does sound like a film that had real potential, and it would have been interesting to see Hauer at work in such a project.  The efforts Ken described served as a reminder of the huge amount of work that goes into each of the many films that never get made, and so often it's merely a simple matter of luck that determines if a film goes ahead or falls by the wayside.

I thoroughly enjoyed speaking with Ken, and much more of our conversation (particularly the material regarding Jean-Luc Godard) should eventually surface as part of a writing project I'm currently working on.  Ken still makes films, and in recent years he has directed a documentary about the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery, an explosives-laden vessel that sits just 30 miles from London.  The Wreck is narrated by Ian McShane, and I've been lucky enough to see a workprint of the film; it provides a fascinating look at a remarkable situation: despite this ship and its deadly cargo remaining on a seabed close to densely populated land, the authorities apparently have little interest in tending to the issue.  You can view the film's promo reel below.

Darren Arnold

Monday, 23 November 2020

Endless (Scott Speer, 2020)

The Movie Partnership is excited to be releasing Endless, a high school love story with a sinister twist, to digital download platforms from today.  This follows an October theatrical release exclusively in Showcase Cinemas.

From the producer who brought you Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper's box office smash hit A Star Is BornEndless follows madly in love high school graduates Riley (Alexandra Shipp) and Chris (Nicholas Hamilton).  When the pair are separated by a tragic car accident, Riley blames herself for her boyfriend's death while Chris is stranded in limbo.  Miraculously, the two find a way to connect. 

In a love story that transcends life and death, both Riley and Chris are forced to learn the hardest lesson of all - letting go.  Endless also stars X-Men legend Famke Janssen and DeRon Horton, who stars in the groundbreaking Dear White People and Netflix's Burning Sands.

Endless will be available to watch on all major digital download platforms from today.  Stay in the loop with the film here on Instagram.

Source/images: Strike Media